Industry Insights

3 Paths to Better Critical Communications

2019-02-25  |  5 min read 

To understand how emergency-responder and military communications (MilCom) are advancing, don’t be tempted to compare them with the quicker evolution of consumer technologies like fifth-generation (5G) cellular.

Investment and funding in critical communications has generally been spotty and slow. When a disaster reveals shortcomings in interoperability, capacity, preemption, and other aspects, the spotlight shines on the need for improvements. But many governments, from local through national, have not been able to support a major upgrade. Improvements are steadily being made, however, due to three critical communications trends:

1. Public safety moves from analog to digital standards.

With the shift to U.S.-backed APCO P25, public-safety and other land-mobile-radio (LMR) systems make the leap to two-way digital communications. Beyond the integration of voice and data, the multiple standards comprising APCO P25 aim to enable the production of equipment that is interoperable, compatible, and spectrally efficient. TETRA is the European version of a digital trunked mobile radio standard. It offers traditional professional-mobile-radio (PMR) user organizations a scalable architecture that can provide local-area through wide-area coverage. TETRA Release 2 features TETRA Enhanced Data Service (TEDS), which enables wideband, high-speed data-communication services.

Another open standard, DMR, is well suited for business-critical applications. It provides voice, data, and related services. The system enables two calls on the same channel independently, providing twice the system channel capacity versus a standard two-way analog radio system.

2. Multi-format radios use LTE and WLAN.

Long Term Evolution (LTE) capabilities allow users to share images and video in real time in addition to sending texts or simply talking. By collecting and merging this information, both military users and emergency responders gain enhanced situational awareness. LTE also allows units to interoperate more easily. FirstNet public-safety radios are an example of an LTE implementation.

For its part, wireless local-area networking (WLAN) technology will increasingly be leveraged for ad-hoc military and public-safety networks across much of the globe, given its ease of deployment. Broadband applications supported in the U.S. band include mesh networks, hotspots, ad-hoc mobile networks, voice over IP (VoIP), video surveillance, and backhaul. These capabilities enable fast and easy data sharing of potential critical information in large video, image, and other file formats.

3. MilCom radios adopt custom digital formats.

The three basic forms of digital modulation are amplitude shift keying (ASK), frequency shift keying (FSK), and phase shift keying (PSK). Quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) and quadrature phase shift keying (QPSK) are complex modulation formats built upon these basic digital modulation formats. Both provide more efficient bandwidth usage and security for voice communication in the battlefield.

Despite a sometimes slow adoption rate in the past, public safety and military agencies are moving forward with increasingly diverse approaches to update their radio communications systems. While infrastructure varies from smaller ad-hoc networks to more complex rollouts, all critical communications systems must meet requirements for performance, interoperability, and security. Radio manufacturers must therefore test these versatile radios for compliance to industry standards, such as LTE and WLAN, in addition to frequency checks that ensure correct radio operation and frequency precision. Among other performance indicators tested are power output and receive signal strength, which ultimately define range, audio clarity and volume, and more in the field. With MilCom and emergency-responder networks, flaws in a critical communications system can literally be a matter of life and death.

Learn more about Keysight’s public-safety and military-communications solutions here.